Facing a possible 3-0 series deficit in the Western Conference finals, the character and championship moxie earned a season ago was a full display Tuesday night as the reigning Stanley Cup champions made this a series with a must 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Matt Greene was crunching Blackhawks bodies. Drew Doughty seemed to always have the puck. Slava Voynov had more impact than he has in a while, his second-period goal standing up as the winner. Dustin Penner played his most effective game in some time. Justin Williams, of course, was clutch when his team needed him, opening the scoring just 3:21 into the game to set the tone. Jeff Carter was absolutely phenomenal in his most complete playoff game of the spring. Jonathan Quick, not surprisingly, bounced back from his Game 2 hook.
In other words, a number of individuals all raised their game, which collectively produced the kind of team effort the Kings needed to slow down the good ship Blackhawk, snapping a five-game win streak for Chicago.
"We had guys on every line being physical, finishing checks. We got some hits on their key guys, which we didn't get a lot of in previous games," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "It's not one or two guys, it's guys on every line, every D pair. It's a matter of understanding why that makes us successful and repeating it."
None of it surprised the Hawks, who expected a desperate response from the defending Cup champs, especially given their perfect home record in the playoffs, which now stands at a sparkling 8-0.
"We knew exactly the kind of game they were going to play and that they were going to have more confidence, more energy in their own building," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We just didn't bring that same effort and that same pace.
"They played with more energy. They were excited to play at home. They're confident in this building, and they showed it tonight."
Leading the way for the Kings was Carter, who was strong on the puck, creating space and chances -- a total force over 200 feet. Not bad for a guy who for a second game in a row was forced to play center with Mike Richards out again with a suspected concussion. Makes you wonder why he hasn't played more center at the NHL level after playing that position in junior.
"The last two games, he's been playing incredible," said linemate Tyler Toffoli, who along with Carter assisted on Voynov's game-winner 6:37 into the second period. "You can see how good of a skater he is and how good vision he has. I'm just lucky to be playing with him right now. I'm just trying to help him out."
Tactically, the Kings delivered on what was a major point of emphasis in their Monday video meeting: limit neutral-zone turnovers. The Kings wanted to re-establish their forecheck and grinding game in the Hawks' zone and better protect the puck. Mission accomplished on this night, the Kings committing four fewer giveaways than the Hawks, according to the official game summary, while also limiting the Hawks to only 20 shots on goal for the game.
"I thought tonight we did a good job of getting it deep and making them come 200 feet," Brown said.
"I thought their forecheck was a little heavier than we saw in the first couple games," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought even if it wasn't a clean exit out of our end, we didn't get it out indirectly. They sustained puck time, generated some plays. I don't know about the quality of chances, but they definitely got the
momentum out of the game spending time in our end."
The Blackhawks had a free-flowing transition game in Chicago for the opening two games, but Tuesday night found themselves with more Kings players in their face as they tried to get out of their zone with the puck.
"They were physical all over the ice," Toews said. "We just have to keep our feet moving and take hits to make plays. We kind of got flat-footed. We were watching each other a little bit too much. When you're standing still, you're an easy target for them to come hit you."
Looking for a spark for a stagnant offense, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter swapped slumping Anze Kopitar with Jarret Stoll off each other's lines, and the new Brown-Stoll-Williams line paid early dividends when Williams opened the scoring.
"Kopy joked he should be up for the Selke because we got him off our line and we scored right away," Brown said with a smile.
And for whatever reason, one that seems hard to pinpoint among Kings players, they continue to be night-and-day at home (8-0) and on the road (1-7) in these playoffs.
"Everything in our game is being executed much better here at home, and we come out with a little more energy," Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "I think we're more aggressive. Whether that's to do with the home crowd, I'm not sure. Maybe we can ask them to follow us on the road."